The City of Columbus is looking to update the 2002 Downtown Strategic Business Plan with a 2010 plan that continues the trend of urban renewal in the core of our city. Twelve ideas were presented at a public meeting on April 15th and public input is being sought online through Friday, April 30th.
MSI Design is serving in the role of Project Manager for this community input process. We recently sat down with Keith Myers, Principal at MSI and Andrew Overbeck, Urban and Regional Planner at MSI, for an more detailed look at these ideas and what what the finalized plan may look like.
(Click HERE to read Part Two of our interview. Part Three is below.)
Walker Evans: The Pedestrian Bridge idea to connect the Arena District to Franklinton is one that I’ve heard discussed in the past. Is this being proposed to help connect those two areas?
Keith Myers: If you go back to the 1995 Riverfront Plan, you’ll find some discussion about a pedestrian bridge across the river in that area. The idea’s been around for awhile. Back then the Penitentiary was still there, so it probably didn’t make a lot of sense, but it seems like a more interesting concept today. It also provides a nice bike route alternative to connect some of those paths on both sides of the river.
Andrew Overbeck: This also offers an opportunity to add more visual interest to our riverfront in that spot.
KM: Yeah, for all of the bridges we have south of Broad, we’ve really got nothing north of Broad.
WE: The new Scioto Peninsula Development idea that ties in with that seemed to get a lot of applause on Columbus Underground, especially from folks who either live or work in the area. You mentioned at the public meeting that this is a unique opportunity since the City of Columbus owns a lot of that land. My question is whether or not you think this is an area that would be best developed as large-scale, single-developer Arena-District-style neighborhood, or something that makes sense to have the city divide the land up into smaller parcels and shop around for multiple smaller developers, resulting in a more mixed neighborhood?
KM: I hope it’s more mixed. The county owns Veteran’s Memorial and the parking lots on that side, and they’ve got their own plans for that, but I think what’s going to happen on the Scioto Peninsula will be a little bit different. I think what we’re trying to encourage is for people to think of this as more of a block-by-block development. We’re thinking about buildings that are the podium-and-tower format so you could get some high-rise buildings capable of looking over the “shoulders” of COSI into the views of Downtown. It would add more density. I hope what didn’t get lost in the meeting is the possibility that we could use this as a model for sustainability for Midwest urban neighborhoods. There could easily be scientific ties to COSI.
AO: I think the other critical piece there is that with that podium-and-tower setup, you can retain some of the neighborhood-friendly streetscape with a more appropriate height for the edge of Franklinton. We don’t think a big wall of towers would lend itself to creating the right aesthetic there.
WE: When I last spoke with David Chesebrough, President & CEO of COSI, it sounded as if he was on board with building out a neighborhood and leveraging COSI as an anchor for this type of development.
KM: Yeah, we built COSI over there and things have been quiet on the Scioto Peninsula since then. I think its time will come eventually as the economy turns back around. Once the market strengthens for residential development, there won’t be anything holding us back from developing over there. We’ve been very interested in this area for a long time. It’s an area of the city that is so close to Downtown and has a lot of great assets, but has struggled to reinvent itself into whatever comes next. The opportunity there is great, it’s just finding the right way to unlock it. There’s still some challenges down there. But again, once the market turns around, there’s really no reason the City can’t go out immediately for RFPs because they already own all the land.
AO: Yeah, that’s really the unique thing. It’s sometimes so hard to aggregate land Downtown from so many different land owners, but here that’s already been done. There’s been this question over the past few years of whether or not we want to develop that area or if the development makes more sense in the core of Downtown. A lot of other cities don’t have these kinds of opportunities to develop this type of large area, and we need to seize that opportunity.
WE: You mentioned earlier that there have been environmental discussions in the recent past about the idea of removing dams along the Scioto and Olentangy rivers to help clean up the river flow. Seeing this proposed as the River Greenway seemed to catch a lot of people off guard. Do you think a lot of people just hadn’t thought about it in this bigger perspective?
KM: That idea is the one that definitely became the headline coming out of the meeting. We were inundated with comments about that idea. There have always been comments about removing the dams off and on, but they were always viewed in isolation from each other. We got tons of comments at the first meeting about the river… “Can we dredge it? Can we clean it up?” What really got us started in looking at this is the notion that the river is currently such a barrier in Downtown. It’s 600 feet wide and it’s 27 feet below Civic Center Drive. It’s not really doing anything for us. So we decided to look into what would happen if we got rid of the Main Street dam. That’s what kicked the whole thing off. We looked at historic information from the 1880s of how wide the river used to be and so the dam removal would take it back to that. It’ll flow again, and won’t be brown anymore. So we started to think about what we could make it look like. We’ve been looking for awhile at the removal of the Fifth Avenue dam near OSU. So we started to get interested in what would happen if we could create a nice river greenway from OSU all the way down to the Audubon Metro Park at the Whittier Peninsula. From there we started tracking the dams north to Highbanks, which is one of the most popular Metroparks in the region. So we started to see if there was a way that we could connect these two great Metro Parks right through the city. There are five other dams in the way, but this doesn’t have to all happen at once in the form of one big project. This will solve a lot of the river issues and provide a better ecosystem and environment. We can create more usable land and opportunities for bike trails. This doesn’t seem like it would be that hard to do.
AO: Especially with Fifth Avenue already coming out and then realizing that the Main Street dam can come out without any hardship from a utilities standpoint. Right away that gives us a 2.5 to 3 mile greenway.
KM: The other thing in the back of our minds is the fact that these low-head dams are dangerous. They look so innocuous, but if the river level is right, and the flow over them is right, and you get caught below that thing, it’s bad news. These things are dangerous, and they’re not helping from an environmental standpoint, so maybe we should think about taking them out. The ones that do have utilities in them, those utilities have been in there for sixty to eighty years… so how long do they last? At some point you have to replace them, so it might be the right time to do that now.
AO: What a lot of people may not realize is that we as a city are already spending $2.5 billion in our “Wet Weather Management Program” which is solving the combined sewer overflow problem… or at least minimizing it significantly. So we’re spending that money to bury those pipes underground to arguably make our river cleaner, but it’s still not usable. The dams will still block the ability to canoe or kayak on it for any real distance.
KM: Two and a half billion and the river smells better… but we still can’t use it.
AO: If the dam removal program ends up being $60 million or whatever the Dispatch said it would cost, in the context of $2.5 billion, that’s not a big stretch to make the river navigable. That’s around 2 percent.
WE: Looking ahead to the third and final public meeting on Thursday, May 25th, do you think these ideas are feasible and that we may see them in a more finalized format to move forward with?
KM: Well, let me say that there’s kind of a curved timeline to how ideas work in Columbus, and I’m going to use Huntington Park as an example. Around 12 or 13 years ago, the idea first surfaced to relocate Cooper Stadium into Downtown. The immediate public response was that it was the dumbest idea ever, it would be too expensive and no one would go to games in a new stadium. It was like that for a short period and then after awhile people started to say that maybe we should look into moving the stadium and look at a few sites Downtown. Then they found a good site and everything started to make a lot of sense and before you know it we wind up building what was voted as the best new baseball stadium in the country! And now everyone loves it and we can’t imagine what it would be like if we hadn’t built it. That’s the lifespan of an idea in Columbus. The same thing happened with the old Penitentiary and the Arena District. We’re capable of doing great things if we don’t talk ourselves out of it. These are all those types of ideas. They’re going to take a lot of people pushing to get any big idea done, but Columbus is easily capable of doing this.
KM: The main thing that I want to encourage people to do is to not be afraid of an idea. Don’t talk yourself into mediocrity. Columbus is a good city. We have to overcome some of the same challenges that other cities have to overcome, and we sometimes need to overcome ourselves. I think it’s going to be really interesting to look back at today in 15 years and see what we’ve accomplished. It may not be these 12 specific ideas, but I know that we will have gotten some good ideas finished.
More information about MSI can be found at www.msidesign.com
More information about the Downtown Strategic Plan can be found here.